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Desperately Seeking T’fillin

I am one of a small number of observant Jewish women who have taken upon themselves the mitzvot aseh shehazman g’rammah, the category of positive “time-bound” commandments that have traditionally been required only of men: the wearing of t’fillin [phylacteries], tallit [prayer shawl], tzitzit [fringed undergarment] to name a few. These mitzvot are called “time bound” because they are performed only during the day, not in the evening or at night. The reason I have chosen to observe them is that, contrary to popular belief, there are no prohibitions against women doing so; their observance makes Judaism more meaningful to me; and, performing these mitzvot helps me work towards challenging women’s place in Judaism.

The most common reaction I get when I tell other observant Jewish women of my undertaking is: “Why do you want to take on more responsibilities than you already have? I’m relieved not to have to perform these burdensome mitzvot!”

At first I was surprised at this reaction. I assumed that most women are feminists at heart; that most observant Jewish women are torn between their commitments to tradition and their identities as self-respecting women; that most Orthodox women resent the back seat they are expected to take in public ritual life. Most of all, I assumed most women who are already deeply committed to a religious Torah life, given the opportunity and direction, would jump at the chance to take on more mitzvot—whose purpose is, after all, to bring us closer to God.

These days, however, I am not so naive. I realize that most of us are quite complacent in our synagogues, communities and homes. Nevertheless, I still appeal to observant Jewish women: Won’t some of you keep me company in this cause, observing these traditionally- male mitzvot?

Most of us have been led to believe that women are forbidden, by Jewish law, to undertake these commandments. But this is not the case. I would like to explain why women are completely within the bounds of halakha [Jewish law] if we wear t’fillin, tallit and/or tzitzit.

First, the Babylonian Talmud, in the tractate Rosh Hashana 33a, maintains that women are allowed to perform these mitzvot. According to the Ashkenazic tradition (the RaMaH in the Shulkhan Arukh), women can even say a blessing when we perform these commandments.

The tradition goes on to provide examples of righteous women who are recorded to have actually donned t’fillin, tallit and tzitzit. Again, in the Talmud, in Eruvin 66a, there is the case of Mikhal, the daughter of King Saul, who took upon herself these mitzvot; and there is a tradition that Rashi’s daughters donned t’fillin as well.

So, halakha clearly does not stand in our way.

Many Orthodox women also hold the incorrect belief that the strictures of tz ‘niut [dressing modestly] forbid women from donning traditionally male ritual garb. But I argue that the attention we draw to ourselves through fulfilling these commandments is not immodest in the least—on the contrary, it shows our ardent, full attachment to Judaism and to God. One might maintain, paradoxically, that women wearing t’fillin, tallit and tzitzit are not infracting tz’niut, but are actually observing a more stringent application of “modesty.”

There is yet another mistaken belief— that t’meut [ritual impurity] stands in the way of women to want to wear t’fillin, tallit and tzitzit—or, in other words, that women who menstruate cannot touch ritual objects such as Torahs or t’fillin, because we defile them. This idea has been roundly rejected by authorities much more reserved than I. A Torah, like a mikvah [ritual bath], cannot be made impure— neither can a tallit, tefillin or tzitzit.

In other words, we women have the rabbis’ full halakhic permission to participate in these mitzvot.

From my point of view, if women are reaping the benefits of public life—namely status and income—we should also take upon ourselves the Jewish responsibilities that go along with participating in that sphere. There are good reasons that men have been obligated to perform daily religious rituals—being out and about in the world, the mitzvot remind men not to forget that time is sanctified and belongs to God, not just to the marketplace—and if we assume these reasons are sociological (rather than biological), we should realize the need for us, too, to perform these mitzvot when we take on what have traditionally been considered “men’s roles.”

Actually, on a textual basis I would argue that not only are women allowed to perform these mitzvot, but we should be obligated to perform them. In the Mishnah (Kiddushin 1:7), we find the statement, “All time-bound positive mitzvot, men are obligated to perform and women are exempt from performing.” The Gemarrah on that Mishnah (Kiddushin 33b) then explains: “How do we know this is so? It is learned from t’fillin—just as women are exempt from t’fillin [the Gemarrah learns this from Mishnah 3:3], so too are women exempt from all time-bound positive mitzvot. And t’fillin is learned from Torah study—just as women are exempt from Torah study, so too are women exempt from t’fillin.”

Today women are strongly urged to learn Torah, based on the Responsa of the Hafetz Hayyim and others, and therefore the conclusion of the Gemarrah no longer applies. Although women may not be obligated to learn Torah to the extent that men are, they are certainly not exempt. If women are not exempt from Torah study, then the entire g ‘zeira shava [rabbinic logical analogy] falls apart.

But the main reason I urge other women to take on these mitzvot is that my morning recitation of the sh’ma [wherein the commandments to don t’fillin and tzitzit are actually prescribed] has become a transforming experience for me. I feel an unbelievably powerful connection to God while kissing my tzitzit and simultaneously saying that God commanded us to wear fringes on our four-cornered garments.

How odd to recite these words, as 99% of observant women do, and constantaneously exempt ourselves from their meaning. What an alienating experience to recite words that speak directly to “you”—the one who prays—and yet not mean us at all, just our brothers, fathers, husbands and sons. How different it feels to me, how much more profoundly religious, knowing, as I wear my own tzitzit, that God now speaks to me and my experience.

Beyond the halakhic and the emotional, I also have a political motivation. It is my hope that if enough women take on these additional religious requirements, it will become imperative for men (following the logic of kavod ha-tzibur, respect for the congregation) to include us in minyanim [prayer quorums], let us represent them as leaders of these minyanim, and perhaps even eventually accept us as witnesses on religious legal documents. Then nothing will stand in the way of our becoming rabbis and cantors. We will be equal members of the congregation.

It’s not easy, believe me, to blaze this trail. I don’t always feel comfortable making a statement when I pray. Sometimes I just want to daven [pray]. And sometimes I have to forego wearing a tallit on Shabbat (t’fillin are only for non-holy days) because I know I may cause a scene, and when I am a guest in friends’ or relatives’ places of prayer, I do not want to embarrass them.

For instance, although I do wear my tallit at the Young Israel congregation in which I grew up (there I feel people will confront me personally with their questions, objections or support), I do not wear it at the Young Israel of my parents-in- law. I know it would put them in an uncomfortable position, defending a cause that is not their own. So I compromise for the sake of shalom bayit [family harmony], and I let my tzitzit—worn under the clothes— suffice on those weekend visits.

And then, of course, there are times when I know my actions will be taken in entirely the wrong way. For example, when my husband and I went to visit friends for Shabbat in a haredi [ultra-Orthodox] neighborhood outside of Jerusalem. There the fact that I went to shul at all was statement enough. If I had worn a tallit I would probably have been thrown out; and our hosts—who do not agree with my decision to take on these mitzvot—would have suffered for my principles long after I left.

But the hardest thing about choosing my path is that it sets me apart. I fit in nowhere. I prefer an egalitarian minyan, but I won’t daven with a microphone; I wear t’fillin, but I also wear a hair covering. When my husband and I were considering moving out to the suburbs a year or so ago, I called some rabbis in the area and explained our needs. Most rabbis were kind—they too know the halakhah—but advised me not to move to their neighborhoods. “You won’t feel comfortable here,” they said. “We’re a very traditional community. No one wants to make waves.”

One rabbi, however, was downright rude. “You mean you keep Shahbos?” he exclaimed in damning amazement, when I explained that a shul with a microphone would not fit our requirements. “You wear a tallis, and you keep ShabbosKashrus? I don’t understand!” I tried to explain that I wear tzitzit every day, that I pray every morning with t’fillin, that I cover my hair; but it was useless. The idea was preposterous to him.

And thus I am an enigma to some, an absurdity to others, and an apicores [a blasphemous non-believer] to still others. Being an Orthodox female t’fillin, tallit, tzitzit wearer is a lonely business. There are times when I feel I am the only one who cares about these issues, or that what I am doing is inconsequential. The truth is, though, that I know there are others out there like me.

So if you are one of these women, please write or call me. I have a vision of starting a support group of women like us— a network offering encouragement, and perhaps even political clout. Alone, we are enhancing our own lives, but together we could change Jewish history—and reach so many more hungry women.

Which brings me once again to my plea: If the mitzvah at all appeals to you, try it. Lay t’fillin. Wrap yourself in a tallit. Wear tzitzit under your t-shirts, silk blouses, sweatshirts and cashmere sweaters—tucked in, or even letting the fringes hang unabashedly out, if you are so bold.

Try it, you just might like it.

Haviva Krasner-Davidsonwould love to be contacted at 3177 18th St.. N.W., Washington. D.C. 20010: 202 332-2138. Krasner-Davidson has recently created a praiseworthy brouhaha by applying for admission to the all-male Orthodox rabbinical program at Yeshiva University. She awaits their letter of acceptance.